At 78, with three Baftas and a Palme d’Or under his belt, the director still sees himself as an outsider. He talks about Hollywood’s obsession with big names, his determination to portray ‘real people’ – and being accused of pretension
Interviewing Mike Leigh is a daunting prospect, not because of his intimidatingly central plinth in the pantheon of British cinema – well, maybe a bit of that – but because he is extremely exacting. You just couldn’t work the way he does – his scripts are improvised, not written, resting on collaboration, trust, instinct, bravery – without weighing every word, cross-examining every sentence. Otherwise it would just be baggy. He takes this perfectionism into every interview, every conversation: Mike Leigh on Mike Leigh, a close textual and visual reading of his life’s work by Amy Raphael, reissued next month, bristles with this energy.
Then there’s the incredible range of his output: since 1971, he has not just been making films and TV dramas, but breaking and recasting the expectations of form and genre. It bugs him when people always talk about the same few works – Abigail’s Party, Life Is Sweet, Secrets & Lies – and neglect the films of which he is equally proud – Peterloo, or Meantime, a magnificent 1983 exploration of the hard edges of Thatcherism, which maybe didn’t launch, but certainly put a rocket under the careers of Tim Roth and Gary Oldman. The British Film Institute (BFI) has a retrospective this autumn that includes every film he has ever made – “including the Play for Todays,” he says, as if the world has finally recognised that you have to watch them all, like film-Pokémon – and a remastered Naked, which will go on general release in November.